Listening to Your Best Self: Five Practical Ways to Overcome Negative Self-Talk

“Be careful how you are talking to yourself, because you are listening.” –Lisa M. Hayes, American advice columnist. 

Your life may not have theme music, but you’ve probably got a little voice guiding your actions: sometimes a conscience, cheerleader, harsh critic, a chief adviser, and occasionally a real Debbie Downer. Psychologists refer to this narrator, which began with you talking your way through tasks as a kid, as self-talk.

Self-talk begins overtly, out loud, before it “goes underground” to become silent, or covert. But even the overt variety never really goes away. We all still occasionally mutter things like, “All right, here’s how I’m going to do this…” or tell ourselves aloud, “Okay, that was stupid.” Self-talk is always there, always kibitzing, sometime a friend but more often not. According to behavioral scientist Shad Helmstetter, up to 77% of self-talk is negative. That’s depressing, in more ways than one.

Productivity requires you to drastically decrease the Helmstetter percentage. You can’t let self-criticism become so negative it ends up destructive. Here are five practical ways to do it.

  1. Challenge your negative thoughts. Self-criticism often pops into your head without deliberate intent, and you may feel tempted to let it go. Instead, recognize the negative self-talk and immediately challenge it. Negative thoughts are often irrational or unproductive, telling you you’re going to fail, so why even try. Or you’re too tired to start that task right now. Feed yourself positive, encouraging sentences. Even if self-criticism has merit, you can use it as a teaching moment, so you don’t repeat the mistake in the future. Everything, good or ill, becomes grist for the learning mill.

  2. Look at the issue from another angle. Doing so may prove your initial thought untrue. One of my sources for this article, writer Haley Goldberg, recommends heading for your “mental balcony” and re-examining the view from there. It may look different from that perspective. In any case, you’re biased toward your own negativism; others may have a different opinion of your actions and behavior. In fact, we tend to be hardest on ourselves. In the best “silver lining” tradition, instead of seeing everything as flat-out bad, reexamine the situation for learning experiences, or challenges to reframe as opportunities.

  3. Reengage your self-awareness. This one may sound a little Zen, but it’s really not. Metacognition is thinking about thinking, a well-understood and important skill for the modern white-collar worker or scholar. Combined with self-reflection, metacognition boosts your self-awareness of who you are, how your mind works, and how to use your feelings and beliefs as a moral and professional compass. If you’ve let yourself drift away from your self-awareness, you may end up crashing on a shoal of unjustified self-criticism. Are things really as bad as you think, or have you let a tendency toward negativism blind you? Deliberately move your thoughts to what makes you happy and productive, not morose and destructive.

  4. What’s the worst that could happen? Even if your self-criticism proves accurate, so what? Does it really matter if you’ve made a mistake? What’s the worst possible outcome? Now, if you’ve just hit the Big Red Button that launches the missiles, that’s a huge mistake. Turning in a report with a typo isn’t. In the long term, what will it even matter? Let’s say the worst possible outcome is that you get fired. Well, perhaps you’ve been thinking about starting your own business anyway. You always have options.

  5. Don’t just ignore negative self-talk. Don’t ignore negative self-talk altogether. It’s one of the ways your mind handles the incredible amount of information thrown your way every day. Validate your self-criticism, just don’t over-analyze it. You can’t safely ignore your feelings, and some level of anxiety and imperfection is normal. Recognize both and move on, knowing that it’s what you do when you overcome anxiety and your imperfections that really matters. Accept your faults, rebuild your self-confidence, and shore up your strengths. Don’t focus on your weaknesses any more than necessary to achieve the competence necessary to do your job.

The beauty of our species is that we’re diverse; not everyone does everything well. Different people have different strengths, and we do best when we play to our own strengths in concert with those whose strengths offset our weaknesses. This helps glue teams, societies, and civilizations together.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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